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  • A New Aesthetic in Indian Puppetry
  • Theodora Skipitares (bio)
The Tenth Ishara International Puppet Festival, New Delhi, India, February 3–13, 2012.

Many New Yorkers have fond memories of the Jim Henson International Puppet Festivals. They took place at the Public Theater (as well as a dozen other performing spaces) in New York every two years from 1992 to 2000 and brought over a hundred international groups to the U.S. They were powerful agents of change, revealing unexplored or new possibilities in the art of puppetry to many theatre artists like myself. I used to joke that I had received an advanced degree in puppetry from the Henson Festivals.

In 2000, I came home to New York from six months as a Fulbright Fellow in India, where I met Dadi Pudumjee, a well-known puppeteer from Delhi. He arrived in New York soon afterward and joined me at the 2000 Henson Festival, as part of the preparation for his own international puppet festival in Delhi. Six months later, in February 2001, the Ishara International Puppet Festival was launched.

This year, I returned to India as a Fulbright Specialist and attended the festival, now in its twelfth year. Although the festival has always been sold-out, at present there are twelve groups — rather than only one or two — garnering audience support. These groups perform not only in Delhi, but in Mumbai, Jaipur, and other cities. The festival is produced by Sanjoy Roy and Teamwork Productions, a visionary group that has developed festivals of literature, theatre, and film around the world. Anurupa Roy, a prominent Delhi puppeteer working with contemporary subjects, explains:

[W]hat Ishara has managed to do through its annual international festival is to create a regular event and space identifiable with puppetry. … Over the years it has attracted many non-puppet theatre-goers as well as loyal audiences. With each festival, the audience learns a little more about the possibilities that exist within this medium. It is heartening to hear discussions and critique of shows from the audience. … This has been a wonderful challenge for the local puppeteers. One feels [End Page 61]

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The Goat and the Wolf, Parwaz Puppet Theatre, Afghanistan.

Photo: Wieland Jagodzinski. Courtesy Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust.

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The Earth and the Universe, Yase Tamam Company, Iran, directed by Zahra Sabri.

Photo: Zbigniew Fidos. Courtesy Ishara Puppet Theatre Trust.

[End Page 62]

compelled to push the boundaries of puppetry because one has the knowledge that audiences will watch new work critically.1

These growing audiences have emerged from the rising middle class in India. The country is now the fourth largest economy in the world, with a newly affluent, internationally aware populace interested in learning more about a variety of cultural forms. The festival has expanded to the nearby city of Gurgaon, an area created mainly by call centers and other outsourcing companies. It has become an incubator for artists and audiences alike in India, even influencing the artists and groups who come to perform from abroad.

Tradition Merges with the Contemporary

Dadi Pudumjee is arguably India’s most prominent contemporary puppeteer doing work on the cutting edge of experimentation. His most famous play, Images of Truth, is a powerful piece about the life of Mahatma Gandhi and India’s struggle for independence. Dadi was recently awarded the Padmashri Prize, one of India’s highest national awards, and is president of Union Internationale de la Marionette (UNIMA), the international puppet theatre organization (the first non-European president in UNIMA’s history). He travels extensively and is aware of developments in the fields of dance, theatre, and puppetry. When asked to compare this festival to others, he says:

The festival this year is more innovative in technique. The groups are using a wide range of new mediums like paper cuts, everyday objects and unique shadow puppets in their project … India has a strong tradition of puppetry. A few groups have assimilated contemporary techniques while many are improvising on material within their mosaic of religion, myths and traditions of performing arts.2

At the festival this year, there were artists from Bulgaria, Germany, Ireland...


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